Can Exercise for Depression Backfire?

Exercise is recommended to help alleviate depression, but I find that frequently after (and sometimes during) exercise I become extremely depressed or extremely angry. It makes me want to avoid exercising at all. What is happening? What can I do to prevent feeling so terrible after exercising?

– June 20, 2011

As you know, I’m a big proponent of regular physical activity as a means of dealing with mild to moderate depression. For immediate relief there is no better or more natural approach than aerobic exercise, and many studies have demonstrated its efficacy.  I recommend 30 minutes of continuous activity, at least five days a week for best results.

I’m sorry to hear that exercise hasn’t helped you, but I have to believe that the feelings you are experiencing have to do with the way you are exercising. As you don’t mention what kind of activity you’re doing, I can only urge you to experiment with another type. Walking for half an hour should give you a lift, but if that’s what you’ve been doing, why not try biking, indoors or out, or swimming, if that’s an available option? You might try listening to music while you exercise – in addition to lifting your mood, it can help you pick up your pace for a more vigorous workout. Don’t give up. Exercise not only can effectively treat depression, it may also prevent relapses over time even better than antidepressant drugs. Physical activity may provide its benefits by increasing levels of serotonin, by releasing the “feel good” endorphins, by boosting resistance to stress, and by enhancing self-esteem.

Of course, there are also other options you can try to treat mild to moderate depression without medications. Talk therapy, specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy, can make you aware of disruptive thought patterns and find healthier ways to cope with emotions. The key to success is finding a therapist who is a good match for you. You may find candidates via the therapist locator at the website of the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists. I also suggest seeking recommendations from friends, family and your physician and interviewing more than one candidate before making your choice.

I also suggest avoiding alcohol, caffeine and sugar, which can give you a temporary boost but ultimately worsen depression. Focus instead on a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, as well as cold-water fish for their omega-3 fatty acids, which can help relieve symptoms of depression.

For a full discussion of natural remedies for depression and an integrative plan for optimum emotional well-being, watch for my new book, Spontaneous Happiness, to be published by Little, Brown & Co. in November, 2011.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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